Social Justice and the Gospel

‘Social justice’ is a term that suffers from competing definitions and interpretations. From a distance, the term echoes noble desires in the human heart for righteousness and justice to sweep over society. Such are the visions we are led to imagine when Isaiah describes Christ’s coming kingdom as one upheld  “with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.”[1] However, the closer we get to understanding how many people are using the term today, the more confusion is evident.

Some people hear the term ‘social justice’ and imagine the pursuit of bringing our lives, relationships, and responsibilities into compliance with God’s law. Others hear the term ‘social justice’ and imagine a redistribution of resources, privileges, and opportunities until everyone has equal share. Even though each idea can bleed into the other, the difference explains why I recently heard one man say, “The gospel and social justice can’t be separated,” and another say, “The gospel and social justice can’t be combined.”

My hope is to help us understand why this matters, how ‘social justice’ as defined today is different from justice found in the Bible, and how we can respond in a way that distinguishes ourselves by our love.

Why does social justice matter?

God begins His revelation to man with ten vital words. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”[2] Since God is the Creator of life, answers to life must begin with Him. Justice matters first and foremost because God is just. “All His ways are justice…just and upright is He.”[3] Justice is not optional to our lives or to a flourishing society because justice is rooted in the very character of our Creator.

As the fixed standard of justice, God requires justice of us. The Bible says, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”[4] His requirement of justice means that doing injustice is sin. This is why the Bible says, “You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe.”[5] Therefore, it matters what ‘social justice’ actually is because if it is true justice then not doing it is sin, and God will hold us to account.[6]

How is ‘social justice’ being popularly defined?

‘Social justice,’ as it is widely referred to in America today, is not an empty phrase. It has a specific meaning that is influential in academia and public affairs. The tenets of ‘social justice’ are drawn from Critical Theory, which functions as a worldview that is largely incompatible with the Gospel.[7] Critical Theory views the world through a Marxist lens,[8] where everyone is seen either as ‘oppressed’ or an ‘oppressor’ depending on categories such as gender, race, and sexuality. Those in non-dominant groups are seen as ‘oppressed’ by those in dominant groups who impose their values to keep their advantages. In this worldview, the fundamental duty of man is to seek the liberation of oppressed peoples.

This is where we find the connection to ‘social justice.’ The premise is that a society is only ‘just’ if its members have rights to equal shares of the possessions, privileges, and opportunities.[9] Any disparity in wealth or opportunity reveals a structure of injustice that must be rectified. The primary tool used to rectify the injustice in a society is the redistribution of wealth, privilege, and opportunity.[10] This is why it is sometimes called, ‘distributive justice.’[11]  Let me dig a bit deeper by highlighting three central tenets:

1. ‘Social justice’ advocates believe that our individual identity is inseparable from our group identity. Everyone is born into an ‘oppressor’ or ‘oppressed’ group distinguished by demographic categories. Men, for example, would be part of the ‘oppressor’ group and women part of the ‘oppressed’ group. Similar assignments would be made regarding race, age, sexuality, economics, etc.

2. ‘Social justice’ advocates believe that those who live in more than one oppressed group experience ‘intersectionality,’ making their oppression distinct and their opportunity bleak. For example, a non-white, foreign born, gay, woman, all considered ‘oppressed’ identities, would be said to have four ‘intersections’ of oppression making her economic opportunities exponentially more difficult.

3. ‘Social justice’ advocates believe ‘justice’ happens through a redistribution of opportunities and resources from those who have them to those who justly deserve them. The desire is not only for equality, but ‘equity of outcome.’ Equality means that each person is given the same resource and opportunity. Since that won’t always yield equity, additional factors are added to achieve a desired outcome.[12] ‘Social justice’ takes place, then, by identifying ‘oppressed’ groups, assessing current outcomes, and redistributing resources to balance those outcomes. This is the fuel behind the ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ admission and hiring policies in public universities and companies.

What is social justice from a biblical perspective?

In the Bible, ‘social justice’ is a submission in our heart to God that brings our lives, relationships and responsibilities into compliance with His law in order to render to people what He says they are due.

Let me provide an example. The Old Testament prophet Amos pled with God’s people, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[13] This was a necessary appeal because of the injustice he had exposed when he wrote, “I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate.”[14] The ‘gate’ was the place in ancient Israel where civil cases were adjudicated by the city judges. God’s law required that everybody be treated equally under the law.[15] The poor were not to have the law tilted away from them and the rich were not to have the law tilted towards them. But Israel’s corrupt judges had been taking bribes and finding in favor of those who had money. In other words, God’s law was being ignored because favor was being shown to the rich instead of to the upright. This was social injustice.

Biblical examples of rendering to people what God’s law says they are due include defending the weak,[16] protecting orphans and widows,[17] giving generously to those in need,[18] advocating for the poor,[19] giving necessities to refugees,[20] and sheltering the outcast.[21] In each case, society was helped by obeying God’s law. Let me dig in a bit deeper by highlighting three essential characteristics of biblical justice.

1. Biblical justice is marked by unselfish generosity. The Bible teaches that our money doesn’t belong to us or to the state, but to God who entrusts us with a portion to manage as a steward according to His priorities.[22] Generosity is one of His priorities. In the Old Testament, generosity is instructed.[23] Generosity is applauded.[24] Generosity is even part of property law. For example, the ‘Sabbath year law’ required debts be cancelled every seventh year.[25] The ‘gleaning law’ told landowners to leave some of their crops unharvested so the poor could ‘glean’ and get food through their labor.[26] God did not demand the equalizing of wealth, but He did stress generosity. This is why Ezekiel said that giving food to the hungry and clothing to the naked is not only a matter of mercy, but of justice.[27]

The priority of generosity is magnified in the New Testament when God gave His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus taught, “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.”[28] He also said, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”[29] Jesus then went to a cross where He gave His life for our sins before rising from the dead. When we respond to Jesus’ invitation to put our trust in Him, He forgives us, fills us with His Spirit, and teaches us to be generous as He is generous to us. This is why John wrote, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”[30] Since biblical justice is about bringing our lives into compliance with God’s law, one feature of seeking justice will always be selfless generosity.

2. Biblical justice is marked by treating everyone according to the same standard. There is one God. His character is the standard of righteousness, truth, and justice. God has revealed His character and His standard in the pages of the Bible. By these words, all humanity will be judged.[31] God’s law says, “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.”[32] As image bearers of God, every human has equal worth before God and should be treated with dignity and kindness. The Bible repeatedly exhorts us to remember our Creator when we are considering how to treat a person He created. For example, “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.”[33] Again, “The rich and the poor meet together; the Lord is the Maker of them all.”[34] One day everyone will stand before God and be judged according to the same standard. No favors will be paid to the rich or the poor on that day. As such, we are to view and treat people according to the same standards here on earth. This is justice.

3. Biblical justice is marked by advocating for those in need. Jesus is our Advocate. As John urged his readers to fight sin, he wrote what we all need to hear. “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”[35] Christ is the supreme advocate for the needy and He calls us to do the same. While we are called to treat people according to the same standard, we are invited to share His concern for people in need. “Blessed is the one who considers the poor.”[36] “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”[37] Everyone needs an advocate. Advocacy includes connecting a person to the legal, medical, or financial resource they need to face a crisis and helping them to gain self-sufficiency.[38] This advocacy for the needs of others is part of biblical justice.

In what ways is the modern ‘social justice’ paradigm compatible with biblical justice?

The Apostle Paul attempted to find common ground with the Athenians, not to affirm all their ideologies, but to direct them to Jesus.[39] Let me show four bridges that might help open a door of discussion.

1. ‘Social justice’ and biblical justice agree that oppression of the poor is wrong. While a biblical understanding of ‘oppression’ is vastly different, the Bible affirms that oppressing the poor is evil.[40]

2. ‘Social justice’ and biblical justice agree that those with power can use it unjustly to protect their advantages. Jesus acknowledged this misuse of power,[41] but the fact that He used His power to serve and called us to do the same proves that power alone is not inherently exploitative.[42]

3. ‘Social justice’ and biblical justice agree that previous social injustices have lingering ramifications on people today. The Bible acknowledges the reality of unjust social structures. For example, while the Bible says that laziness leads to poverty,[43] it also says the land that would yield food for the poor is swept away through injustice.[44] Let me give a real example. At the end of World War II, nearly 1.2 million black soldiers were denied the GI Bill aimed at helping veterans prosper after the war by providing college tuition, home loans, and unemployment insurance.[45] This injustice expanded the wealth gap in America, which has had social and economic ramifications that linger to this day.

4. ‘Social justice’ and biblical justice agree that the poor need an advocate. Nobody modeled this like Jesus. As we follow Him, we should share His concern and sacrificial care for the poor.[46]

In what ways is the modern ‘social justice’ paradigm incompatible with biblical justice?

Let me show four areas of great importance.

1. ‘Social justice’ looks to give people what human perceptions of inequality say they are due, but biblical justice looks to give people what God says they are due. There are times when these may be the same, as in giving food to the hungry, but other times they are not. Our perceptions of justice can be wrong, but God’s Word that reflects His goodness, trustworthiness, and justice is never wrong.[47]

2. ‘Social justice’ flows from an ideology that functions as a worldview with answers that are not true. The story of the Bible runs from creation to redemption. It says that we are created in God’s image (identity), that we have sinned against God (fundamental problem),[48] that we are saved by trusting in Jesus who died for sin and rose again (solution),[49] that those who believe in Him are empowered to love God and others (purpose),[50] and that we will face judgment before God and spend eternity either in heaven with Him or in hell according to His just determination (destiny).[51]

In contrast, the story of ‘social justice’ runs from oppression to liberation. It says we are members of either a dominant or marginalized group (identity), that we have oppressed and are tainted by guilt because we are members of a dominant group or have been oppressed as a member of a minority group (fundamental problem), that we save ourselves by rectifying injustice (solution), that we need to redistribute resources, privileges, and opportunities to solve injustice (purpose), and that the world will culminate in a utopia after all inequality is deconstructed (destiny).

3. ‘Social justice’ views inequality of possession, privilege, and opportunity as inherently unjust. The Bible affirms that unjust practices can lead to poverty, but it also points to factors such as sin, laziness, poor investing, heeding bad advice, and mismanagement.[52] Furthermore, as we see in Jesus’ parable of the talents, where the owner of the estate entrusts differing amounts to people, the Bible attributes God’s will as a factor in different levels of wealth and unequal outcomes.[53]

4. ‘Social justice’ welcomes the use of injustice to remedy injustice. Biblical justice seeks to bring our relationships and responsibilities into compliance with God’s law. The Bible explicitly forbids special judicial deference to the rich or to the poor.[54] According to God’s law, our civil laws are not to tilt in favor of the rich or the poor, but only to the upright. Biblical justice emphatically calls for generosity to the poor, but never permits using injustice to equalize real or perceived injustice.

How can we personally seek biblical justice for the good of man?

1. Let’s saturate our hearts with Scripture so that we can bring our relationships and responsibilities into compliance with God’s will. We cannot render to people what God says they are due if our Bibles remain closed. Doing justice begins and is sustained by exposing our hearts to the justice of God and the justice He calls us to pursue in the pages of the Bible.

2. Let’s remember that man’s fundamental problem is sin and the only solution is the Gospel of Jesus. As cracks appear on structures that rest on the faultlines of our understanding and relationship with God, remember that fixing symptoms without fixing the source leads to more pain. Man’s greatest problem is guilt before God. Jesus is the only solution to this problem. For this reason, we must go on making the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection the center of our message.[55]

3. Let’s show the evidence of God’s coming kingdom of justice and righteousness in the church. The church is intended to be the household of God in which family, business, and personal relationships are transformed as we love one another.[56] We are called to give the world a glimpse of what society will look like under Jesus’ rule and justice. We are to love one another, be generous to one another, and advocate for one another. We are to treat one another according to the same moral standard, yet share Jesus’ concern for the poor. With Jesus’ example before us and the Holy Spirit’s power within us, we want to witness to the coming heavenly society where all its citizens flourish.

4. Let’s demonstrate justice and righteousness outside of the church. We can reinforce the goodness of our Savior by giving generously, treating one another fairly, and advocating for the weak. Every time we give, love, and use our voice to get in the way of injustice—whether it’s human trafficking, economic exploitation, human rights abuses, or infants dying from disease and malnutrition—we provide a winsome apologetic of God’s kingdom to those observing our lives.[57]

5. Let’s not allow the rejection of any social theory to blind us to the real burdens of the poor. Not helping the poor because we are justifying the causes of economic gaps is absolutely unlike Jesus.

6. Let’s allow the gospel to shape our response to the poor. The gospel shows a Savior who exercises authority over us, but who uses that authority to serve us, and who was willing to lose it and suffer in order to save us. We must never stop struggling to walk in our Savior’s steps. He left the riches of heaven and became poor so that those who are spiritually poor could become spiritually rich.[58] Jesus didn’t delay by debating our worth. He saw our need and came to meet the need. His example must motivate us to pursue generosity, treat everyone by the same standard, and advocate for the poor. It is wise for us to regularly ask ourselves, “Who had needs that I personally met this month?”

7. Let’s allow patience and hope to be the lens through which we see brokenness. Jesus came to earth the first time not to bring judgment, but to bear it so that we could be forgiven. When Jesus comes again we will experience His final justice. Until then, we are told to, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”[59] We know Christ is going to make things new, so hope should populate our prayers and pursuits for biblical justice. We also know that only Christ has the power to bring perfect justice, so we must be patient and humble in our prayers and pursuits.

8. Let’s engage in the political process, but not betray our loyalty to Christ. We have a stewardship of freedom that enables us to participate in selecting leaders and making laws. I believe God would have us participate as His representatives, bringing our faith and His values to bear. Let me give two appeals as we participate. First, remember that Jesus is Lord.[60] With the division between political parties, it’s easy to forget that we actually live under a divine monarchy. Jesus is King. He tells us that He cares about things such as authority, integrity, humility, sanctity of life, family, sexuality, personal responsibility, the poor, and the refugee. These values should be reflected in our voting. Second, be careful not to betray your first love. One of the reasons for the growing resistance to the church in America is that many Christians are seen as soldiers for political movements more so than followers of Jesus. When the culture sees more loyalty to temporal ties than eternal ones, they are justified in assuming religion is just a cover. This is why Paul insists that we not let political passion supersede our oneness in Christ.[61] Let me ask: Would Jesus say you are more passionate about Him or your political party? Who do you talk about more? Whose dishonor grieves you more?

9. Let’s repent wherever God’s Word reveals sin. If the Holy Spirit is highlighting a gap between your life and His standard, let me urge you to confess the sin, turn, and find refreshment for your soul.[62]

Biblical justice can only come through Jesus. When we trust in Jesus and yield to His Spirit, our heart is inclined to submit to God in ways that bring our relationships and responsibilities into compliance with His law. Part of this compliance is rendering to people what He says they are due. As we pursue this justice, Christ is glorified and we enjoy a foretaste of heaven where humanity is freed to flourish again.

The only book I recommend without qualification is the Bible, every word and page. However, I found portions of the following resources helpful in my attempt to understand. I do not agree with everything in these writings and forums, but they served me and for that I am thankful for their labor.

“Christianity and Social Justice,” by Neil Shenvi[63]

“Christian Virtue Strengthens the Social Justice Cause,” by Justin Giboney[64]

“Justice In The Bible,” by Tim Keller[65]

“The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel”[66]

“Social Justice: Biblical and Secular,” a roundtable discussion from Faith & Law[67]

[1] Isaiah 9:7

[2] Genesis 1:1

[3] Deuteronomy 32:4

[4] Micah 6:8

[5] Deuteronomy 16:19

[6] Micah 6:1-8; 2 Corinthians 5:10

[7] A more detailed look at Critical Theory can be found at www.pray.org/say.

[8] Marxism is a system of thought known for its portrayal of tensions that exist between economic classes that are collapsed into categories of ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed,’ with capitalism being one main cause of oppression.

[9] https://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/social-justice.asp#toc-what-is-social-justice

[10] According to the Oxford Dictionary, social justice is ‘justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.’

[11] https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-distributive-justice-5225377

[12] https://www.marinhhs.org/sites/default/files/boards/general/equality_v._equity_04_05_2021.pdf

[13] Amos 5:24

[14] Amos 5:12

[15] Leviticus 19:15

[16] Psalm 82:3-4

[17] Isaiah 1:17; Zechariah 7:10

[18] Psalm 112:5

[19] Proverbs 31:8-9

[20] Deuteronomy 10:18

[21] Isaiah 16:3

[22] 1 Chronicles 29:14; Matthew 25:14-15; 1 Corinthians 4:7

[23] Proverbs 19:17; 21:13; 22:9; 28:27; Psalm 37:21; 112:5

[24] 1 Samuel 25:18

[25] Deuteronomy 15:7-10

[26] Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22

[27] Ezekiel 18:5-9

[28] Luke 6:38

[29] Luke 12:33

[30] 1 John 3:17

[31] Romans 3:19

[32] Leviticus 19:15

[33] Proverbs 14:31

[34] Proverbs 22:2

[35] 1 John 2:1-2

[36] Psalm 41:1

[37] Proverbs 31:8-9

[38] Luke 10:30-35; Deuteronomy 15:13-14

[39] Acts 17:16-34

[40] Proverbs 14:31; Isaiah 10:1-3; Zechariah 7:10

[41] Matthew 20:25-26

[42] James 4:7; Luke 22:26

[43] Proverbs 10:4-5

[44] Proverbs 13:23

[45] https://www.history.com/news/gi-bill-black-wwii-veterans-benefits

[46] Matthew 25:34-40

[47] Psalm 119:160; 2 Timothy 3:16-17

[48] Romans 3:9-19

[49] Romans 3:21-26; 5:1; 10:9-10; Ephesians 2:1-9

[50] Matthew 22:36-40; 28:18-20; Ephesians 5:1-2

[51] Revelation 21:1

[52] Proverbs 6:9-11; 10:4-5; 11:15; 13:18; 28:19

[53] Matthew 25:14-30

[54] Exodus 23:2-3

[55] 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

[56] 1 Peter 2:9-12

[57] Matthew 5:16

[58] 2 Corinthians 8:9

[59] Romans 12:12

[60] Colossians 2:9

[61] 1 Corinthians 6:6-7

[62] Acts 3:19-20

[63] https://shenviapologetics.com/christianity-and-social-justice/

[64] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2021/august-web-only/racism-social-justice-christian-virtue-strengthens.html

[65] https://quarterly.gospelinlife.com/justice-in-the-bible/

[66] https://statementonsocialjustice.com/

[67] https://www.faithandlaw.org/social-justice/

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